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Ruthless Certainty?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Jan 10, 2008

On the “Beliefs” page in Newsweek’s inaugural issue for 2008, Lisa Miller wrote an essay entitled “Moderates Storm the Religious Battlefield.” The essay was accompanied by two teasers. First, in the table of contents: “Among Faithful and Nonbeliever Alike, a Welcome Uncertainty”. Then, atop the essay itself: “More-modest voices are reclaiming the debate over faith from the bomb throwers.” Sigh. So much to correct, and so little time.

The Argument

Miller’s initial premise is that all social movements in their infancy require passionate outbursts and entrenched positions, but then they invariably mellow, and so now we are beginning to hear voices on both sides of the God question who are “intelligent but less strident.” As examples of what she means by social movements, she cites feminism, fundamentalism, and rock and roll. But really she is writing not so much about social movements as about theists and atheists. And clearly she thinks that the infancy period for both groups ended in 2007. They must have been very old babies, indeed.

In proof of her thesis that both sides are mellowing, Miller cites:

  • Rev. Timothy Keller whose forthcoming book The Reason for God urges skeptics and believers alike to “wrestle” with their unexamined beliefs in order to hold their positions “with both greater clarity and greater humility.”
  • Rev. Peter Gomes—described by Miller as a conservative African-American gay—whose book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus asserts that the central and controlling idea in the Gospel is its call for compassion.
  • Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, who confesses in his new book, God’s Problem, that the existence of suffering has rendered him incapable of believing in the Christian God, concluding that “Some people think they know the answers. I’m not one of those people.”

These, then, are the “moderates” who have “stormed” the religious battlefield. True, one might consider as moderate a preacher who encourages everyone to think more deeply, even if we wish first to ask what he means by his assertion that “doubt is the cornerstone of faith.” Presumably he is rightly arguing for the examined life, though this might legitimately be mistaken in our time for an extremely radical view. (I suspect it is a view that, were it remotely understood, would appear radical even to Lisa Miller.) But what of a Christian minister who wishes to redefine the Gospel? And what of a Bible scholar whose book purports to show that the Christian God cannot possibly exist? Perhaps Miller understands “moderation” and “confusion” to be synonymous.

And the Point Is?

Still, we may ignore for the moment the incongruity of Miller’s examples, for as we have already seen, her thesis was plagued by incongruity from the outset. Besides, she really just wants to make one very clear and important point, expressed both forcefully and neatly in her conclusion: “What’s dangerous about the world today is not belief in God—or secularism or unbelief—but ruthless certainty. If 2008 is the year when we can begin, in private and in public, to concede that we don’t know all the answers, then let us say amen.”

Now any writer can sympathize with another writer’s difficulties in constructing a cohesive essay around an idea which began life rather shabbily as the writer’s first thought on the subject, alone and bereft of argument. Most of us start with such an idea and then flesh it out into something persuasive, convincing or at least entertaining. I am working in precisely the same way here. But very often in the course of our writing, we discover that the original idea doesn’t quite work; it needs to be modified substantially. Even more often we find that the arguments and examples that most quickly spring to mind won’t fall into line as they should; we must seek better ones. Finally, if we don’t have the time or ability to make such changes, we are forced by our own sense of responsibility to drop the idea.

I’ve dropped many a half-baked idea myself, and that’s exactly what Lisa Miller should have done in the present case. For her leading idea is not really an idea at all, still less any sort of thesis. It is rather what we might call an inverse straw man. In logic, a straw man is an idea that is very easily knocked down because it doesn’t really represent the issue in question, but is instead a distortion of it. In Miller’s case, we have two “inverse” straw men, two ideas which are easily affirmed only because they slip past quality control without in the least representing the issue in question; they are silly distortions. In other words, Miller’s conclusion is rhetorically fine and utterly meaningless.

Hot Air Balloons

For want of a better name, perhaps inverse straw men should be called hot-air balloons. Their authors necessarily send them up all unsupported. The first such container of Miller’s hot air is the phrase “ruthless certainty”. Clearly, if something is ruthless (i.e., without pity or compassion, cruel or merciless), then it must be bad. Hence “ruthless certainty,” if it is found in large numbers of people, must constitute a serious problem. But the only problem turns out to be that the adjective “ruthless” cannot in any meaningful way modify the noun “certainty.” One is either certain of something or one isn’t. Indeed, it is technically impossible even to be very certain or more certain, let alone ruthlessly certain. Ruthlessness isn’t about certainty; it’s about how we treat others.

The second container for Miller’s hot air is the phrase “all the answers”. Here the problem is that anybody who claims to know “all the answers” is either mentally unstable or a teenager. One sympathizes with the desperation of Diogenes, accosting strangers with his lantern held high, seeking endlessly for an honest man. But how desperate do we suppose Miller became in her pre-2008 quest to find someone who didn’t claim to know “all the answers”? The mind boggles at the hardship.

Perhaps we can all agree, without benefit of Lisa Miller, that nobody knows “all the answers”. But that hardly stops people from knowing some answers, even answers to very important questions. Admittedly, some people will misuse their certainty by investing it in error, but it does not therefore assist the cause of truth to assume that all answers are false. I suppose one might object that Miller very probably doesn’t believe in truth (so fond is she of not knowing “all the answers”), but on reflection it is very hard rationally to disbelieve in truth, for truth is simply the mind’s conformity with reality. This gives rise to a fairly intuitive principle, quite the opposite of Miller’s meaningless rhetorical sleights-of-hand: It is impossible to live as if there is no truth. Put differently, it is impossible to live without some significant portion of certainty.

No Engagement

In other words, Lisa Miller has given us a fluff piece in which she does not even begin to engage either of the issues that lie at the heart of her odd excuse for a central idea. What constitutes certainty? How is certainty related to ruthlessness? Had she examined these issues seriously, she would have found that it isn’t certainty that causes problems, but what one is certain about. If a person is certain that the universe exists to serve his own selfish ambitions, or that only winners have rights, then he will very likely behave ruthlessly. While an atheist might consistently believe such things (and some have), a Christian cannot, and so a Christian (while he is Christian) can lapse into ruthlessness only through sin, which we may define here as a failure to live according to the certainties proposed by Jesus Christ.

But Miller has done worse than fail to engage her own issues. She is so far from understanding what is at stake that, on her own reading, at least one of her three examples of moderation is actually a case study in ruthlessness. Rev. Peter Gomes is a sort of a strange hybrid Christian, and so Miller takes him for a moderate. But what she describes is a gay man who insists that Christianity be rewritten to permit the carefree indulgence of his own desires. Accordingly, he teaches that the real power of the Gospel is its “uncompromising call for compassion.” Moreover, in Miller’s own words, Gomes has written “an alternately eloquent and folksy attack on everybody who’s sure of the right answer” (emphasis added).

On the basis of Lisa Miller’s description, then, the Rev. Gomes sounds very much like a man who is certain that the universe exists to serve his own selfish ambitions, and so is prepared to act ruthlessly not only toward the Lord he claims to serve but toward anyone else who stands in his way. I hasten to state that I have no personal knowledge of Peter Gomes. I rely purely on Miller’s character sketch, and I maintain the firmest hope (though not the certainty) that she has done precisely as much justice to Rev. Gomes as she has done to the disagreement between atheism and Faith.

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